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Harvest Public Media reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues through a collaborative network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest and Plains.

COVID-19 Risk, Unemployment Rates Lowers Number Of Migrant Workers


The number of migrant farmworkers in the U.S. dropped 42% in 2020, likely because of the risk of COVID-19 coupled with high unemployment rates.

H-2A farmworkers, who are hired to help with seasonal harvests, make up 10% of farmworkers in the United States. Last year, there were 150,000 H2-A farmworkers in the field from January through July. According to the Economic Policy Institute, it’s a decrease from 2019, which had 257,667 H2-A certified jobs

High unemployment rates decrease the demand for H-2A workers. Diane Charlton, a professor of agricultural economics at Montana State University, says a 1% increase in a state’s unemployment rate is associated with a 5% decrease in demand for H-2A workers.

Charlton says another 11% of the farm workforce are international “shuttle migrants” — undocumented seasonal workers. Charlton says many of those workers also could have been discouraged by the COVID-19 pandemic to work in the U.S. last year. Charlton says many of these workers migrate from Mexico. 

“If someone's living in Mexico, it might be a new factor in their decision of whether to migrate to the U.S. to work on farms,” Charlton says. 

Charlton says sick workers present a significant risk for the labor market and lost income for farmers.

“If there's an outbreak of COVID-19 in my workforce, and I'm a farmer, I have to figure out how to get that crop harvested,” Charlton says.

Jayson Lusk, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University, says areas with farmworkers were hit harder by the coronavirus. He says COVID-19 could continue to affect migrant farmworkers this year. 

“How coronavirus affects the ability to move across borders, particularly Mexico, is going to be something to keep an eye on,” he says.

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